NC State University food safety students give lessons in food safety outside last weekend’s game.
By Rose Hoban
Amidst the music from the Wolfpack marching band, the patter of radio announcers and the wafting scents of grilled beef, tailgaters at Saturday’s N.C. State football game were also treated to a lesson in food safety.
In a large white tent outside Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, members of State’s food safety department gave out free burgers and meat thermometers to people willing to spend about five minutes to learn the proper temperatures for cooking their meat.
“I’d never really thought about it,” said Steve McMahel, a fan from Wake Forest who was scarfing down a free burger. “You don’t think about it, but it makes sense that you should check the temperature when you’re cooking.”
Food safety professor Ben Chapman said the people who were coming through his department’s tent were receptive to the lessons of grilling food safety, using a thermometer, preventing bacterial cross-contamination of food, and correct handwashing.
“We’re displaying and letting people get hands on, letting them get their hands on a thermometer because we feel it’s a little more effective than handing out a brochure or sending somebody to a website,” he said. “We really want to get people comfortable with the tools and then engage with them for a couple of minutes.”
Last year, Chapman’s student Mary Yavelak surveyed tailgaters about their grilling habits and found few, if any, used meat thermometers. Using her basic research, the food science folks came back to make the point about correct temperature during this year’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences tailgate amenities day.
“I’ve heard a bunch of people say, ‘I never know when my burger’s done,’” she said. “We’re just really glad we are getting to share this information.”
Standing over a smoking grill, John Luchansky gave his pitch about getting beef to 160 degrees to clutches of people – some clutching mimosas or beer. About 450 people wound through the tent, browsing displays along the way to get to the free grub and thermometer.
Luchansky used patties on the smoking grill and photos to show that color alone is not enough to determine doneness.
“This one, it looks well done,” he said pointing to a laminated photo of a browned burger. “But the thermometer reads 135.”
“This one, the inside is pink,” he said pointing to another, “it might not look done, but the temperature reading was 160. A lot of things will determine the color of meat, the age of the meat, the body, the fat content, they can all impact color.”
Luchansky said to take thermometer readings from several places to ensure that the meat is cooked thoroughly enough to kill pathogens like E. coli, especially the :0157 mutation, which can lead to kidney failure and death.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 9.4 million people annually get sick from a food-borne illness in the U.S. Of those, about 265,000 people in the U.S. get sick from E. coli:0157-tainted food, leading to about 3,600 hospitalizations and dozens of deaths.
“So, you put your thermometer in two places and two places it says 160, you’re good to go. Any cells of E. coli:0157 will be much more likely to be killed,” Luchansky said, sticking a thermometer into the thickest side of the burger.
“It’s about killing that particular pathogen.”
Burgers and birds
Food safety is on Chapman’s mind a lot the week before Thanksgiving, a time when many people cook large turkeys. The lessons Chapman and his colleagues were trying to get across on Saturday also apply to Thursday’s bird.
“You really can’t look at turkey and figure out how safe it is, the color, as the juices run clear, none of that is an effective way to judge safety,” Chapman said.
He said there can be as much as 20 degrees difference between a thick part of the turkey, such as the thigh joint or the breast, and the rest of the bird.
“In a turkey depending on how long you’re cooking it for and the temperature your oven gets, and maybe if it was frozen, all these things are factors,” he said. “So, thermometer use is important all year round, no matter what you’re doing.”
Chapman said turkeys really need multiple pokes with a thermometer to confirm doneness, prevent illness, and prevent your family members from becoming sick.